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After Senate passage, Pa. justice reinvestment bills face House skepticism

Republican Todd Stephens speaks at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

Republican Todd Stephens speaks at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

A package of bills that would overhaul part of the criminal justice system easily passed the state Senate this legislative session–but it faces a slower path through the House.

The measures are part of the second phase of Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative — or JRI.

One would update sentencing guidelines and would allow automatic parole for some low-level offenders. Another would create a parole advisory committee aimed at helping counties, and the third is a constitutional amendment that looks to keep victims better informed about developments in their cases, and would make it easier for them to be compensated.

The first JRI package was enacted in 2012, with a similar mission: create policies designed to get people out of prison and keep them out, and fund the initiatives with money saved on corrections costs.

Ultimately, inmate numbers shrank under JRI 1 and the state shut down a prison. It was considered a success — though some representatives, like Montgomery County Republican Todd Stephens, noted at a public hearing Monday that they have reservations about this set of reforms.

“The concept, I’m fully supportive of,” Stephens said. “I just want to make sure that the numbers add up and the dollars get where they need to go in order to see the results that we’re all anticipating.”

Stephens and other members were particularly concerned after testimony from Mark Bergstrom, who directs the commonwealth’s Commission on Sentencing.

JRI 1, he said, was supposed to give the commission $400,000 every year for five years for new programs. He estimates the group received about 54 percent of that money and got none in 2017, the fifth year.

“We were given permanent mandates with temporary funding,” he said.

Rob Kauffman, a Franklin County Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and held a hearing on JRI 2, said he agreed that there needs to be more vetting.

“It’s impossible to commit a future general assembly to what we are doing in this general assembly, and that’s the difficulty,” he said.

As for a timeline?

“Maybe it will be ready and positioned for movement in the fall,” Kauffman estimated.

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